(a sermon for June 24, 2018, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13)
“Are you sure you want to be a minister?”
This was the rather pointed question that I heard time and time again from the man who not only was my pastor but also the member of the clergy who‘d been assigned as my mentor and advisor in the years leading up to my ordination to the Christian ministry! “Are you sure you want to be a minister?” He was always asking me this, sometimes with a smile but oftentimes dead serious; and I must confess that it did seem rather odd at times that the very person who had been charged by the wider church to offer encouragement in my process of discerning my sense of calling to the ministry seemed to be trying to talk me out of it!
Now, I must add at this point that this man was among the most caring, supportive, nurturing and yes, encouraging people I could have ever hoped for in my pastoral journey. Moreover, even as a young “wanna-be” pastor he gave me so many valuable opportunities to develop my skills as a preacher and worship leader; truly, even all these years later I realize that so much of what I do now as a church pastor I first learned from him. But he was also a realist, and he wanted me to understand the whole truth about this pastoral vocation to which I was being called: that despite its many joys, working in the ministry can be a very hard job; that the hours were long, the work often demanding and the pay not nearly as much as could be received in other professions; and that the stress of it will almost certainly take its toll on you if you’re not careful, and also on the members of your family. And not only that, he said, but be aware that sometimes, despite your best efforts, the people you love and serve as a pastor and preacher just won’t be listening to what you have to say… or else, you’ll find out they were listening and just said no! Either way, that’s when you’ll need all your faith to stay strong and to keep at this ministry to which you’ve been called.
So…“are you sure you want to be a minister?”
Well, as of today I’ve been ordained 34 years so I think the answer to that question was and is, “yes!” And may I say that it’s been a wonderfully joyous and grace-filled journey every step of the way; and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life than being a pastor! But I also have to admit that over the years I’ve discovered again and again that my pastoral advisor was right on all counts; and I must tell you that there have been moments, albeit not many, but a few along the way when it did take a fair amount of faith to stay strong and to keep pressing forward on the pastoral journey.
Of course, what I’m talking about here is not unique to ordained ministry, is it? Indeed, unless I miss my guess, there are times for each one of us here, no matter what our particular calling or vocation happens to be, that to be honestly and wholly faithful people, that living as true witnesses of God’s grace and love can be a real challenge; most especially when what we believe and what it is we seek to do “with our hearts wide open” ends up being ignored or rejected by those we’ve sought to love. Perhaps you and I can’t attest to having endured anything on that list of persecutions included in our text for this morning – “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” – but I suspect some of us might know what it is to have our faith dismissed by others – perhaps even by those close to us – as something naïve at best and fanatical at worst, a belief system that’s totally unrealistic and out of sync with the values that modern society and the world sets forth!
I really don’t wish to sound overly negative here, but this is often the hard and fast reality of how the world treats people of faith, especially in these divisive hyper-partisan times we live in! And it’s why we do need all the faith we can muster to stay strong and to keep solidly on our journey of discipleship. As Paul himself wrote to what presumably was a faltering group of Christians in the city of Corinth, “As we work together with him [with Christ], we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Or, as it’s wonderfully translated in The Message, “We beg you, please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. To begin with, we need to understand that Paul wrote there to the Corinthians was actually very personal in nature; the response to some very specific and very painful difficulties he was having with the Christians there. Apparently, there was lots of rumors spreading throughout the church in Corinth (it’s always about the gossip, isn’t it!) regarding Paul’s sincerity in faith and a lack of credentials for ministry. So what becomes clear is that as faithful as Paul was seeking to be in this situation (“with no restriction in our affections,” he says), living out his faith in ways that were sincere, truthful, loving and genuine; being patient, kind and good as he reached out to his brothers and sisters in faith in Corinth, these Christians had in fact sort of closed off their hearts to Paul.
So now, about five chapters of dealing powerfully and not unkindly with matters of divine grace and reconciliation, Paul lays it on the line to Corinthians that the time had come for their hearts to be opened; quoting Isaiah in that “now is the acceptable time; see,” he says, “now is the day of salvation;” the time for the righteousness of God to be demonstrated in each one of those who have been reconciled to him through Christ. In other words, now is the time for the faith that’s needed to do this ministry to which we’ve been called together and which we share today and in every day that is to come!
And this admonition begins with that very first verse we shared this morning; translated still another way, “See to it that you do not receive God’s grace in vain.” Now here’s something interesting: the word that’s translated almost everywhere as “in vain” is the Greek word kenos, which probably more accurately means, “empty.” So what Paul’s actually saying to the Corinthians is if you are going to accept this graceful gift of God’s salvation and love, do not do so in a way that empty and meaningless! In other words, quoting Scott Hoezee here, “if God’s grace has really taken root in your hearts and you really understand how his salvation works, then this had better show up in your lives.” What Paul is doing here, writes Hoezee, “is making it clear not only that working for Jesus is a rough and tumble business in this brutal world” but he is also spelling out how all the faithful need to react to the hardships, persecution and conflict that will inevitably come as a result of it. And simply put, it comes down to living out your faith not in some casual, nearly empty kind of way, but rather faith like you mean it!
And to illustrate both the importance and the result of such faith, Paul then gives the Corinthians – and also you and me – that long list of the struggles of discipleship… but also the blessings that come as those struggles are met with true faith and the acceptance of God’s reconciling grace. In other words, affliction will be met with purity; hardship creates knowledge; calamities bring forth patience; even the pain that results from being “beaten up, jailed, and mobbed” nurturing “gentleness, holiness and honest love.” So many things can, and will happen when you seek to be true disciple of Christ you are called to be; but “in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute,” known or unknown, even as one dying, in a true and meaningful life of faith we are so much more. See, says Paul, “we are alive; as punished, and not yet killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Like I said before, very few of us will ever have to face the kind of full on persecution that Paul or so many other of the early Christians had to endure for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ. And yet, I can’t help but remember my old advisor’s warning about ministry not always (if ever!) being an easy or convenient way of life. Likewise, for any of us it’s all too easy, given the inevitable difficulties and struggle of doing what’s right where our faith is concerned, to let our hearts get closed off to its importance not only to our lives, but also to our world. Each one of us, you and you and me, needs to be living faith like we mean it; to quote Scott Hoezee one more time, most especially in these days of confused situations, in the church “we need the message and the truth of what Paul says… do not receive God’s grace in vain, “or in emptiness. “Too much is at stake for the church to look no different from the rest of the world these days.” And then he adds this, which I thought was very timely: “Before we start lobbing accusations at one another… [or] before we start knocking each other around in the same rough-and-tumble spirit that is animating the larger body politic today, we had best take a good, long look at our Savior Jesus Christ,” and reflect on whether our actions and words risk rendering the grace of God in our midst in ways that end up vain and empty.
My question for you today, friends, is if you can say that you truly live your faith like you mean it. Are you able to find the spirit led resources that not only keeps you strong and empowers you to live through the times of personal and worldly rejection, but also provides a means to share the spiritual riches you’ve been given with others? Is your heart open wide to the ministry to which you’ve been called (and yes, don’t ever forget, we all have a ministry in Christ’s name!), and does the fullness of God’s grace in your life become the source material of righteousness and salvation in the world?
The thing that’s both interesting and incredibly reassuring is that in this ministry that I’m a part of I get to see it unfold all the time: in those who have dismissed the notion that one’s Christianity is merely a one hour a week proposition, but have decided that things like hope and joy, peace, justice and above all love are more than just ideals but are made real in caring for others who stand near to them in direct and very tangible ways; or for that matter in reaching out to those who have long felt themselves to be beyond the reach of anyone who cares! I see it in those who have chosen to go against the grain of whatever pop culture is proclaiming at the moment and to stand up for that which makes for God’s peace – his shalom – and to do so in a way that is not divisive but unifying, without finger pointing and name calling but in a manner wholly rooted in the love of Jesus. And I see it in the way of some of those around us have simply endured; the people we all know who have taken on the burdens and uncertainties of life as we know it but nonetheless view every single day as a gift, as an opportunity to show forth true and lasting witness to the wonders of God’s grace within themselves and in all things around
These who the people who have not received what they’ve been given in vain; but who have ever and always lived faith in a way that says they mean it…
…I pray that the same may be said of each one of us, beloved, so that everything we say and do today, tomorrow and always resound with a joyous…
…thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry